After the twin bombing attacks by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) in Istanbul that killed 36 police and eight civilians, the Turkish state is stark raving mad and out for revenge. Can this mood impede rational decisions by the state?
Around 10:30 p.m. Dec. 10, two suicide-bombing attacks — one vehicle-borne, the other by a pedestrian — after a soccer game near the Vodafone Arena stadium in Istanbul shocked the country. The terror attack killed 36 police and eight civilians and wounded more than 160 people. The attacks were claimed by the TAK, which I had earlier described as being "designed as a pre-emptive strike force” as the proxy of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
My December 2015 article “Are clashes spreading to western Turkey?” said the PKK, reeling under intense pressure in Turkey’s southeast and in northern Syria, had opted to use the TAK as a proxy to carry out attacks in metropolitan centers and thus ease the pressure it is under, expand the battlefront and send a "We are still powerful" message to its base.
Why is the PKK itself not carrying out attacks against critical targets in western Turkey? The PKK is not willing to squander the positive international reputation it is gaining for its struggle against the Islamic State. It doesn’t want to be judged by international opinion as being a terrorist group (even though Turkey and the United States already consider it to be so). That is why the attacks are carried out by proxies with no active links to the PKK. The PKK actually refuses to acknowledge the TAK's existence. This is a new phenomenon Ankara is not accustomed to.
It is also worth noting that these attacks came at a time when the executive presidency debate in Turkey had peaked after the Justice and Development Party and the opposition Nationalist Action Party had agreed on a constitutional amendment. The bombings naturally relegated the presidential debate to the back burner.
Some details about the bombings: The vehicle used in the attack was bought in Istanbul a week ago, rigged with explosives and handed over to the TAK suicide bomber. Crime scene experts believe that because of the extreme heat generated by the blast, the explosive used was of a military type; the detonation opened a crater with a depth of some 6½ feet (2 meters).
The bombers were identified as two men. Police have been able to track most of their movements in Istanbul using footage from security cameras in the city. The vehicle-borne suicide bomber waited until the large crowds had dispersed from the soccer game. He dropped off his passenger, who had a backpack and who was the other bomber, and drove the car laden with 400 kilograms (882 pounds) of explosives to a spot where police who had finished their duties at the game were assembling. Forty-five seconds after the vehicle-borne bomber blew himself up, nearby police challenged the man with the backpack walking toward their assembly point. The man set off his bomb, killing five police, himself and a civilian.
The public is now justifiably asking how such professionally rigged bombs and the bombers could make it to Istanbul to launch such a well-planned attack in a country that has been in a state of emergency rule and security alert for five months. The bombings took place only two days after 50,000 police had carried out a massive law-and-order operation in the entire country.
Unfortunately, the political climate in Turkey is not all that conducive for asking such questions and for there to be a rational discussion of the issue. As an analyst who was personally involved in Turkey’s anti-terror struggle in the late 1990s and now as an academic who for the past two years has been trying to monitor the terror issues, I would like to share my impressions.
For the first time, I am seeing the state being excessively emotional and furious. This mindset is clearly discernible from the statements of political decision-makers after the attacks. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who spoke at the funerals of the victims in the presence of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, said, “The sword of the state is long. We will hold you accountable. Some of you might be wondering what our reaction will be. I promise you in front of our martyrs here that revenge will come.”
Soylu, referring to the PKK in another speech, said, “Where is the country you said you will create? Did you manage to go beyond living like animals in caves, on mountains? Do you have anyone who will cry, pray for your soul after you get wiped out? As of tomorrow the priority mission of the security forces of the state of Turkey is to exact revenge on the perpetrators.”
Erdogan visited the headquarters of the police detachment that was the target of the attacks. He told the police forces there, “As a state, as a government, we are behind you. Don’t ever hesitate to use the authority and prerogatives given to you to combat terror. Use your rights. Never show pity to the brute; do whatever is necessary.”
Mehmet Ozhaseki, the minister of environment and urbanization, also visited the police compound after the attack. “These people have to know we won’t be vanquished. We won’t give up. We are all candidates for martyrdom. If God allows, I will be a martyr too, Inshallah [God willing]; you, too, will become martyrs,” he said.
Ankara is now expected to adopt even more radical measures in the struggle against the PKK and to eliminate the organization and all its political and sociocultural affiliates. According to several columnists and journalists, from now on even an expression of sympathy will not be tolerated for the PKK, which one article said is “living its last days and about to come to its end. For example, after these attacks, Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] deputies and officials will either have to resign and sever their links to the party or be treated as terrorists themselves.”
Ankara no doubt will be treating anyone affiliated with the HDP or sympathizing with the PKK with an iron hand.
Then there is northern Syria. TAK militants who carried out attacks in February and March in Ankara and on June 7 in Istanbul turned out to have been specially trained in northern Syria.
There are serious allegations that the perpetrators of the latest attack, for which Turkey declared its first national mourning in many years, were trained in improvised explosive devices with absolute secrecy and compartmentalization in special camps in the Kobani canton. The trainees did not meet each other.
Also, security sources in Ankara believe that the improvised explosive devices used in Istanbul were made with military-type explosives that came from northern Syria; hence the growing feeling that Ankara is seriously considering military intervention in Kobani canton east of the Euphrates River and north of Raqqa.
This in turn will mean even a sharper rift in US-Turkey relations.